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FEATURE Hamish Bain: 'After my first ball-carry, I felt a finger in my eye... what?!'

Hamish Bain: 'After my first ball-carry, I felt a finger in my eye... what?!'
1 month ago

Hamish Bain is spluttering. His flow broken and his voice frayed by the most uproarious of rugby weekends. The Scottish lock has just helped Vannes become the first Breton side to win promotion to the Top 14 and, in the rugby-infatuated medieval town, that’s a big deal. The place has been a teeming mass of bonkerdom these past few days.

Since sealing the title with victory over Grenoble in the Toulouse final, the players have been hailed as conquering heroes. This entailed, in no particular order, crowd-surfing atop the iconic ProD2 trophy, serenading revellers from the city ramparts, cruising around on hired boats, and leaping off the harbour walls into the bitter Gulf of Morbihan.

“I’ve got a bit of a cold,” Bain laughs. “I don’t think jumping in the port was the best idea. We were up until 3am after the game and then drove eight hours home on the bus from Toulouse. We arrived in Vannes and had a tour round the town on a petit train, which is just a little open train.

“There’s a huge garden area and we all got on the wall in front of the crowds, doing chants and singing songs with the microphone, shook hands and signed a lot of stuff. I don’t know how many people were there but it was crazy.

“They all go nuts for this club. Almost every home game has been a sell-out. I know the club went from under 100 investors from local businesses to more than 500 and it’s going to go even higher. It’ll take a lot of investment to stay in the Top 14.”

Bain had been in France before, further down the pyramid as a pup fresh out of Scottish Rugby’s academy. The union had a partnership arrangement with Stade Nicoise in what was the third tier. It sent a crop of its emerging talent to undergo a very literal crash-course in men’s rugby, while living abroad and learning a language.

Back then, barely a week went by when Bain wasn’t stunned by some bizarre happening. There was no club gym, so the players hefted their weights equipment outside and pumped iron on the field in searing heat. The local derbies were like nothing he’d ever seen; more akin to an outtake from Road House than a rugby match.

“Nice had a rivalry with Grasse [just north of Cannes],” he remembers. “My first carry against them I went in, presented the ball back, and just felt a finger in my eye. What? I couldn’t believe it. Our coach said before the game, ‘if you don’t punch someone in this game you’re not going to play for us’. I threw my first and only punch in a rugby game. But nothing happens, the ref shows a yellow to whoever starts it and then you play on.

Hamish Bain
Bain spent two seasons in Glasgow Warriors’ professional squad but only earned seven outings after injuring his shoulder (Photo by Getty)

“You had 150KG tightheads running at you. I don’t think anyone in the tight-five was under 120KG. They’re all huge in the lower leagues. Their skill levels aren’t as high but they pride themselves on their physicality.

“It’s more professional now, they’ve changed the leagues from the regional-type setup. But that was a big, big culture shock. You don’t see any of that back home and you don’t really see it here now.

“The only thing which happened at Vannes involved our coach buying a steak from a butcher and throwing it down on the ground my first game here. I couldn’t speak great French, all I saw was the steak on the ground and everyone got up and were like, let’s go and play. It must have been a metaphor but I clearly didn’t get it.”

Bain is not the only Scot to have flourished in Northwest France. With back-row slots ferociously competitive, 20-year-old age-grade cap Rudi Brown was let go by Scottish Rugby last year, and has shone for Vannes’ espoirs [academy] side. In a two-team setup laden with internationals, young players can find opportunities fleeting.

Now 26, Bain has charted a nomadic existence since progressing through the Edinburgh ranks. He returned from Nice to sign for two years at Glasgow but played only seven times. A shoulder injury stalled his progress and he was stuck behind Test regulars in Richie Gray and Scott Cummings. He went to Jersey last season and won the Championship, before flitting back to France and claiming the ProD2.

One day they get brought into the meeting room really early in the morning and were told it’s essentially done; your careers are stopped and you don’t have a job.

“The opportunity to play for Glasgow wasn’t there,” he says. “It was about me trying to work on other things – my body fat was too high so I stripped that down a lot, did extra gym, and extras on the field with Rob Harley. I worked with him on maul defence and that’s one of my big strengths now.

“It would be good for young players to get more opportunities in Scotland but I don’t know how they can do that. Guys like myself and Rudi have had to come away. Rudi has done unbelievably well. He’s captained the espoirs not long ago, and been training with the pro side all year. His French is better than mine.

“It’s a tough one, I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. I’ve managed to get two league wins so it’s worked out not bad.”

A bevy of A fixtures will soon replace the semi-professional SuperSeries which aimed to bridge the gap between the top echelons of Scotland’s club game and the URC. Those might provide the quality of rugby young Scots need to hasten their development, but for some, there may be no substitute for the jeopardy and biff offered by regular hard-nosed game time.

“Moving away from home is different, it’s not the same as staying at home and hoping to play,” Bain says. “It’s completely different to playing in England or Scotland. It’ll make you a better player and be good overall for life experience.

“It is tough for young players to play back home and if they’re not getting the game time they need, they need to look at other playing opportunities. There are more of those opportunities here in France. They have to look out for their best interests and they need to play – that’s pretty much it. I would recommend giving it a shot.”

The attrition of the ProD2 suits Bain’s style, an abrasive second-row who relishes the choreography of lineout defence and skelping opponents in the tackle. His year at Vannes has been a success, even if the final months were plundered by a shoulder problem. None of this, of course, guarantees longevity in so precarious a climate. Once more, Bain is on the hunt for a new home.

In these moments, he thinks of the friends he left at Jersey, some of whom have not played professionally since the club went bust last year. Bain had already moved to Vannes by then, but the stories from the island and the horrors of administration strengthen his resolve to earn another deal.

“The boys had absolutely no clue there were financial issues at the club. One day they get brought into the meeting room really early in the morning and were told it’s essentially done; your careers are stopped and you don’t have a job.

“We were all really, really tight. Some have had to get ‘normal’ jobs in finance and whatnot. They were a few games into the season, and there’s not going to be the same opportunities for clubs to look at 30-plus players.

“It gives me confidence that right now, I’m not where I’d like to be, but I feel like I’ll still be playing top-level rugby next season. I played well this year, I’m chatting with my family and girlfriend about what would be the best fit for me, in France, back home or elsewhere, and I’m open to exploring every opportunity there is. I think for Vannes it was just a little bit difficult around the timing of my injury, but I’m back fit and I’ve just won a league. I’m ready for my next opportunity, wherever that is.”

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